Ecomagination Meets the GHG Challenge in the Oil Sands

In world rankings of countries by oil reserves, Canada holds the third position. The resource is a rich endowment, but it is also challenging: some 97% of Canada’s oil — more than 165 million barrels — is located in oil sands, where crude must be separated from a heavy mix of water and sand known as bitumen.

Extracting crude from bitumen is an expensive and technologically demanding process. More important, it raises issues concerning how to develop a globally significant resource in the most environmentally sound and sustainable way.

Such challenges, however, are bedrock for innovation, and GE has made a priority of fostering such innovation worldwide. A leading example is the GE GHG Ecomagination Innovation Challenge.

Launched in Calgary in July 2014 by GE CEO Jeff Immelt, the GHG challenge consists of a two-phase collaboration with the Canadian Oilsands Innovation Alliance (COSIA). GE invited international experts — from industry, business and academia — to participate in an “open innovation” process to reduce greenhouse-gas production and increase efficiency in oil sands operations.

The first phase of the challenge — focused on higher value uses for low-grade heat — concluded this past January, with four companies winning the opportunity to enter joint development agreements with GE along with $100,000 development grants.

GE announced the winners of the second phase of the challenge today. They are Sid Abma of Sidel System Inc., a California-based manufacturer of flue-gas waste heat recovery units that he founded with his wife, Ellen in 1978. Joining the Abmas are Dr. Sumon Sinha, founder of Sinhatech USA, an R&D firm based in Oxford, Miss., focused on energy-saving technologies for the transport, aviation and HVAC markets, and Sylvain Lalot, a mechanical engineering professor at the Université de Valenciennes et du Hainaut-Cambresis in France.

The second phase of the challenge focused on improving the efficiency of steam generation in oil sands recovery.

The most common process for producing oil from oil sands reservoirs is steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD). It involves generating steam at a central processing facility — using boilers known as “once through steam generators,” or OTSGs — then transporting it to a well pad, where it is injected into the ground through a wellbore. The steam warms the oil in the bitumen, allowing it to drain down to a second wellbore. From there, the oil-water mixture is pumped to the surface, where it is separated. The resulting produced water is then returned to the OTSGs as feedwater.

One of the challenges in SAGD recovery is that the continuous production of steam requires burning large volumes of natural gas, which produces greenhouse-gas emissions. Moreover, existing OTSG generation facilities represents a major capital expenditure for oil sands producers. As a result, there is interest in developing technologies that can be retrofitted to existing installations and adopted quickly to reduce emissions.

The winners of the second phase of the GE GHG Ecomagination Innovation Challenge — who will receive development partnership opportunities, like phase-one winners — were able to propose proven technologies that can be demonstrated on an industrial scale within five years. will provide more details on the people and their innovations in upcoming stories. For now, though, the last word on the GE GHG Ecomagination Innovation Challenge perhaps belongs to Lorenzo Simonelli, President & CEO of GE Oil & Gas.

“We are believers in the role that technology can play to advance operational efficiencies and improve environmental performance in Canada’s oil sands,” he says. “In collaboration with the Canadian Oil Sands Innovation Alliance, GE and its industry partners were able to tap in to the world’s best and brightest minds to explore promising technology solutions to the challenges facing the industry.”

For more information on the first phase winners of the GE GHG Ecomagination Innovation challenge, read “Anything I Can Do, We Can Do Better: GHG Ecomagination Innovation Challenge Winners Tout Collaboration” at GE would also like to thank NineSigma, an international open-innovation firm, which facilitated the GE GHG Ecomagination Innovation Challenge.

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